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NHL WESTERN CONFERENCE PREVIEW

Possibilities Seem Endless

October 03, 2006|Eric Stephens | Times Staff Writer

With one week left in the 2005-06 regular season, the Edmonton Oilers were clinging to the eighth and final playoff spot in the Western Conference.

Two months later, they were playing in Game 7 of the Stanley Cup finals. The Oilers' playoff run only proved that nothing is predictable in the unpredictable West. As a result, a signing frenzy broke out this summer.

Having lost to the Oilers in the semifinals, the Ducks took from them, grabbing their best player, Chris Pronger, who made himself available and turned all of Edmonton against him.

Others joined the fray. The Kings brought back Rob Blake. Nashville hopes Jason Arnott makes sweet music with its star Paul Kariya. Calgary added high-scoring Alex Tanguay. Phoenix threw big money at Ed Jovanovski and Minnesota finally opened its checkbook.

Vancouver purged itself of Todd Bertuzzi and got goalie Roberto Luongo in return. Detroit hopes veteran Dominik Hasek will solve its playoff problems in the net.

The only sure thing is everyone will beat up on one another, with the survivor to fight the Hurricanes or the Buffalo Sabres for the Cup.

In predicted order of finish, the top eight teams qualify for the playoffs:

1Nashville Predators. The South is where it's at. Tampa Bay and Carolina have Cups and now it could be the Predators' turn. They're deep up front and on the blue line. They added Arnott and already have Kariya and Tomas Vokoun. Maybe they'll sell out a playoff game.

2Ducks. Publicly, GM Brian Burke lauded his Edmonton counterpart, Kevin Lowe, for his tough stance in the negotiations for Pronger. Privately, Burke might have said, "You traded him to us! Thanks for handing us the Cup!"

3Calgary Flames. GM Darryl Sutter realized two things: He doesn't want to coach and the Flames actually have to score goals to win. So Sutter handed the reins to assistant Jim Playfair and stole Tanguay from Colorado. Otherwise, it's more of the same -- tough defense and Miikka Kiprusoff in goal.

4San Jose Sharks. The Ducks might have made the big move, but it could be the smaller moves that make the Sharks more formidable. Joe Thornton and Jonathan Cheechoo will again do their thing, but new acquisitions Mike Grier and Curtis Brown toughen them up.

5Minnesota Wild. GM Doug Risebrough heard the rumblings from the fans and responded by jacking up the payroll to $41.8 million in 2006-07. Adding Pavol Demitra and Mark Parrish helped keep Marian Gaborik, but will Coach Jacques Lemaire turn them loose?

6Dallas Stars. The cast still includes Mike Modano, Sergei Zubov, Jere Lehtinen and Brenden Morrow, but they replaced Arnott with often-injured Eric Lindros. They also still have regular-season wonder Marty Turco in goal. Not enough for a Cup run here.

7Edmonton Oilers. Lowe did well to acquire Joffrey Lupul in the Pronger deal and add him to a stable of hard-working forwards. The GM did his homework: Lupul will like Edmonton since he's from nearby Fort Saskatchewan.

8Detroit Red Wings. Now that the fall has begun, can Detroit still be considered Hockeytown? The Red Wings still have warhorses in defensemen Nicklas Lidstrom, Chris Chelios and Mathieu Schneider, but the spotlight is now on Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg. Three straight early playoff exits is a bad sign though.

9Columbus Blue Jackets. If nothing else, this defense-challenged team will be entertaining to watch with Rick Nash, Nikolai Zherdev, Fredrik Modin and a reborn Anson Carter. But aging Sergei Fedorov is out until November with a bum shoulder. When will these teams learn?

10Phoenix Coyotes. Perhaps no team did more in terms of sheer volume in the off-season, but it still can't score. Picking up Jeremy Roenick is volume enough but taking a flier on oft-injured Owen Nolan? Seniors do like retiring there.

11Kings. New GM Dean Lombardi is making an impact. Marc Crawford will have the ear of veterans after they tuned out Andy Murray. Blake still has some mileage left. Lombardi also hopes he got the next Blake in 19-year-old Jack Johnson. All of those moves will pay off -- in 2008.

12Vancouver Canucks. Some say this team will win the Northwest. Nope. It will take a while before the stench of Bertuzzi clears. But the Canucks finally get the franchise goalie they've long pursued in Luongo.

13Colorado Avalanche. Ex-GM Pierre Lacroix saw the writing on the wall in an embarrassing playoff sweep by the Ducks. No Peter Forsberg, no Blake and now no Tanguay. But they have Tyler Arnason, who flamed out in Chicago and Ottawa. Joe Sakic deserves better.

14Chicago Blackhawks. Vow a return to cheap ways after free-agent busts Nikolai Khabibulin and Adrian Aucoin make them realize you don't always get what you pay for.

15St. Louis Blues. Team thrilled about dynamic line of Keith Tkachuk, Doug Weight and Bill Guerin. One catch: it's 2006, not 1996.

eric.stephens@latimes.com

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